Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: November 1, 2022 by Crystal Uys
Raising abandoned kittens can be challenging, but it can also be very rewarding. Depending on their age, kittens who have been abandoned or rejected by their mother, or whose mother has died, may need to be hand raised.
Ideally, kittens should be with their mother until they’re at least five or six weeks old. The longer they can nurse, the better. Young kittens need their mother’s milk not just for nutrition, but also to receive important antibodies that will protect them against disease later in life. Since orphaned kittens don’t have this protection, they can be particularly vulnerable to disease.
The following guidelines can help you care for abandoned kittens.
Determine the kittens’ age
Kittens open their eyes when they’re seven to fourteen days old. Have a veterinarian check the kittens over as soon as possible to determine their age and to identify any noticeable health issues. Your veterinarian can also assess the kittens’ hydration status and initiate appropriate treatment if needed.
Keep kittens warm
If the rescued kitten feels cold, warm him gently by placing him under your clothes next to your skin, or on a heating pad wrapped in towels and set on the lowest setting. Don’t feed a kitten until he is warm. If a kitten’s body temperature is too low, he won’t be able to properly digest food. Kittens under three weeks old can’t control their body temperature, so make sure to continue to keep them warm.
Feeding orphaned kittens
Cow’s milk does not provide adequate nutrition for kittens, and cats lack the enzyme to digest it properly so it will cause diarrhea. Get a kitten milk replacer and a nursing bottle, eye dropper or syringe. If you use a nursing bottle, be aware that kittens won’t be able to suck the milk through the small nipple; you will need to squeeze the bottle while the nipple is in the kitten’s mouth.
Warm the milk replacer in hot water before feeding. During the first few feedings, kittens will only consume very small amounts, and you will need to feed them every couple of hours. You can increase the amount of time between feedings gradually as the kittens start to eat larger amounts.
At about three weeks of age, you can start feeding small amounts of watered down canned kitten food. Be prepared for this to be messy as kittens learn to eat on their own; initially most of the food may end up on instead of inside the kitten! Gradually reduce the amount of water you add to the food until they eat it undiluted. Once the kittens eat the canned food consistently, you can stop feeding milk replacer.
Stimulate kittens after each feeding
Since there is no mother cat to perform the task of cleaning the kittens after meals, you will need to stimulate the kittens to eliminate after each feeding. Use a warm wet tissue or piece of cotton and gently wipe the urinal and anal openings. The kitten should urinate or defecate immediately. Gently dry the kitten after elimination.
Litter box training
Once the kittens start moving around and begin to explore their environment, provide a low sided litter tray with a small amount of litter. Instinct will usually guide them to scratch. Once they start urinating and defecating on their own, you can stop stimulating them after each meal.
Watch out for kittens that do “poorly.” If a kitten is smaller than the others in his litter or doesn’t seem as alert or active, take the kitten to your veterinarian. Young kittens can be fragile, and early intervention may save the kitten’s life.
Watch for any potential health problems such as changes in urination or defecation patterns, eye, nose or ear discharge, and parasites. It’s usually a good idea to have your veterinarian check a stool sample when the kittens are about four weeks old.
For more information and a wealth of fantastic resources on caring for orphaned kittens, visit The Kitten Lady website.
This article was originally published on Answers.com, and is republished with permission.
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.